Discovering Guided Discovery

In much the same way a small flake of snow eventually turns into an avalanche, I think a teacher’s – and a learner’s – progress can be somewhat likened to that gradual yet ferocious process of development.

This week, a feedback session on eliciting vocabulary led to reading an article on in-class feedback, which led to reading a chapter of a book, which lead to further reading on the Internet. Eventually, it all snowballed into an epiphany: Guided Discovery.

Scrivener really spells out the fundamental idea behind Guided Discovery in chapter 7 of his book Learning Teaching with the example of the following activity: “you write some sentences (all using the past perfect) on the board, but with the words mixed up…” and the students have to order the words.

Learners’ requirements are very often determined by teachers and not by the learners themselves. Traditional methodologies, such as PPP, usually place the teacher in the driving seat and put the learners on the receiving end. Guided Discovery, however, turns that Teacher-Student relationship on its head and makes the learners and what they know/don’t know the driving-force of the lesson.

No class ever has a group of learners whose knowledge of English is exactly the same. A pre-intermediate level group of 15 students might not have mastered the Present Perfect yet, but for sure some will recognise it, others will already know it, and a few will have never seen it before. That spectrum of knowledge is a brilliant opportunity to hand the lesson over to the learners.

This week, on my EAP pre-sessional course, I wanted to revise the Past Perfect. The group – mainly Chinese speakers – have had PPP lessons on this grammatical point in their home country. More than likely more than once. Yet, they consistently opt for other tenses which don’t express the meaning of the sentence as good as the Past Perfect would, and when they do try to use it, they usually fail to produce it correctly.

With the aim of activating their schema of the PP, I put six muddled-up sentences on the whiteboard and ask them in pairs to put the words in the correct order.

After that, I chose one of the six to use as an example. By asking questions, I elicited from the learners what I wanted them to know:

  • the two events are in the past
  • one came before the other chronologically
  • they are connected

That eventually led to the following timeline being drawn on the board:

Which seemed perfectly fine, until I asked them, with their partners, to draw timelines for the other five sentences. What they produced was similar to the above, minus the line connecting the two events… i.e. a timeline for two unconnected events in the past in the Past Simple.

We’ve now come to a crucial point in the lesson. We’ve gone over what the learners do know and we’ve got to the core of why they rarely use this piece of grammar correctly.

At this stage, the vast majority of teachers would resort to explaining why the students’ timelines are wrong. However, that process of explaining unfortunately neither involves the learners in the learning process (save beyond listening to what is being said), nor does it seem to work, given this tense has been ‘explained’ to them numerous times before.

So, instead of opting for the explanation route, I gave them the sentence, ‘my mum opened the door and said good morning to my neighbour.’ After eliciting the appropriate timeline (as the one above except without the connecting line), I pointed out the fact that their timelines were the same as this new one and asked if that’s right? A couple answered no and one student even claimed that the two timelines can’t be the same because ‘they don’t mean the same.’

Refusing to give them the answer, I gave them thinking time, and one of them eventually piped up and pointed out the fact that they should be all ‘connected’ with a line. I asked why? The answer: because the two events are connected. One short answer, one massive ‘ahaaaaaaa’ from the whole class. The penny had finally dropped.

*Image courtesy of Scott Thornbury


Scrivener, J. (2011). Learning Teaching. 3 ed. London: Macmillan.

One thought on “Discovering Guided Discovery

  1. It’s true that some students may not think too much because they know their teacher will give them the answer, so I admire your perseverance.


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